Feeding Fantasy in The Image of Idleness (1556)

Early Modern Satyr

The 1550s is one of the richest periods for satire in English literary history; not perhaps in terms of quality, but in terms of the sheer inventiveness, energy and courage of the satirists who worked in that dangerous decade, when the reigning monarch changed twice and the religion with her.[1] If the prevalence of satire at the time isn’t widely known, this is perhaps because of the diversity of forms it assumed. Verse satire, for instance, included many imitations of the great medieval poem Piers Plowman, first published in 1550: most notably Thomas Churchyard’s controversial prophecy Davy Diker’s Dream (1552), which sparked off a flurry of aggressive ‘flytings’ from Churchyard’s fellow pamphleteers and was still remembered in the 1560s.[2] Later came William Baldwin’s elegiac satire The Funerals of King Edward the Sixth (1553); John Heywood’s ambitious animal fable The Spider and the Fly (1556); and the celebrated Horatian satires of Thomas Wyatt, printed for the first time in Tottel’s Miscellany (1557). Satirical drama included two outstanding interludes sometimes attributed to Nicholas Udall: the proto history play Respublica (1553) and the mock-classical comedy Jack Juggler (c. 1555). Most remarkably of all, a vein of satirical prose fiction emerged, inspired by the first English translations of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (1549) and More’s Utopia (1551): William Baldwin’s translation of the scurrilous anti-Catholic diatribe Wonderful News of the Death of Paul III (c. 1552), and his masterpiece, the Menippean satire Beware the Cat (1553; not published till 1570).[3] How many of the writings I’ve listed would now be called satires it’s hard to say; but every one of them exploits laughter to make a serious political point, and given the accepted derivation of the word ‘satire’ at the time from the Latin term for a mixed dish, a stew made up of many ingredients, it would seem wholly appropriate to apply the term to this eclectic diversity of forms and styles.

Image from Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly

Various though they are, all these satires share a common theme. Every one of them addresses social and economic problems and their solutions; and in most cases the imagination or ‘phantasy’ is taken to be the faculty responsible for social and economic abuse.[4] It’s the imagination that enables the vice Avarice and his cronies to adopt new, misleading names in Nicholas Udall’s interlude Respublica, and so to beguile the Lady Commonwealth into letting them take control of her affairs. It’s the imagination that, in Baldwin’s Funerals of King Edward the Sixth, gives the rich such inflated self-esteem that Death has difficulty in distinguishing King Edward’s palace from the palatial residences of his subjects as he seeks out the boy-king to punish him for the sins of his people. At one point in Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly a fly caught in a spider’s web swaps places with the spider in an attempt to understand his point of view as an aristocratic predator. They agree ‘to change places (each for the time) to imagine and set forth other’s part the best they can […] Wherein the fly anon is so allured to pride and ambition in occupying (for the while) the spider’s stately place, that he at last with an oath affirmeth that spiders are owners of all windows’ – that is, that the aristocracy has a God-given right to the possession of all the land in a commonwealth.[5] In the interlude Jack Juggler (c. mid-1550s), based on Plautus’s Amphitryon, the eponymous trickster uses violence to persuade a young page that he is not himself but some anonymous imposter, which prompts the epilogue to assert that powerful figures are capable of imposing their imaginations on the powerless. ‘Force, strength, power, and colorable subtlete,’ the epilogue tells us, ‘Dothe oppresse, debare, overcum, and defeate ryght,’ until the ‘poor semple innocent’ is forced to affirm that ‘the moune is made of a grene chese’, that ‘the croue is whight’, and that ‘he him selfe is into a nother body chaunged’.[6] Power in all these texts is a mind-altering drug, inducing in its possessor the condition of imaginative ‘vainglory’ or conceited self-delusion, which can be imposed on others by force, and which Marian writers take to be the presiding sin of the time.

Among the most sophisticated investigations of the power of the imagination, and the dominance of ‘vainglory’ or self-delusion, is a work of prose fiction first published in 1556, the anonymous Image of Idleness.[7] That this brilliant epistolary novel remains almost unknown can be ascribed to three causes. First there’s its anonymity, which remains one of the main reasons why fine literature gets forgotten.[8] Secondly there’s its uniqueness, since readers tend to assume a text can’t exist in a time and place where it has few analogues; with the notable exception of Beware the Cat, no other original works of prose fiction survive from the 1550s, and this means The Image of Idleness can’t easily be identified as part of a literary trend or movement. Finally, there’s the fact that it has only ever been edited once, in a journal, and that the edition in question badly needs updating.[9] The book also suffers from the fact that it can’t be easily categorized. The contents consist of a letter purportedly written by a man called Bawdin Bachelor to his married friend Walter Wedlock, in which Bawdin’s gives his views on the ‘art’ of marriage (as he calls it) undeterred by the fact that he has never had a wife. This long letter encloses several more letters written by Bachelor, mostly to the various women he could not persuade to marry him, though one letter gives an extended and very funny account of his failed attempt to seduce a widow on the road to Cornwall, and the last gives some bad advice to would-be adulterers. All these letters have been translated, we are told, from the Cornish language (there’s even a line of Cornish in the text) by a man called Oliver Oldwanton, and dedicated to his patron, Lady Lust.[10] These alliterative names, with the alliterative title, seem to indicate the text’s affiliation with the satirical tradition of Piers Plowman. But The Image of Idleness has more in common with humanist Menippean satire than with the medieval variety. The letters form what’s in effect a Lucianic dialogue – they are full of casual allusions to the pagan gods – and the rich vein of irony that runs through them is very much like Lucian’s.[11] It’s a mixed dish, containing elements of a philosophical treatise, a set of familiar epistles, and fabliau or scurrilous anecdote. So far so uncontentious; Flachmann too calls it a satire. But what’s it satirizing?

Flachmann’s introduction locates the text firmly in the misogynistic tradition of the querelle des femmes: a series of attacks on women (and a few defences of them) which began to circulate in the fifteenth century and continued unabated into the seventeenth. The Image of Idleness, though, can hardly be accused of misogyny, despite the many harsh words Bawdin has for women, because Bawdin himself, the marriage expert who’s never been married, is so patently an idiot. A more likely target for its satire is Catholicism; and this alone makes it a remarkable document, as the only surviving anti-Catholic satire to have been openly published in England in the reign of Mary I. There are many clues to this aspect of its agenda, such as the title, with its veiled allusion to the fondness for images which Protestants thought of as idolatry, and to the idleness of which Protestants accused the Catholic religious orders; and the dedication, which gives Lady Lust a confessor or ‘Penitencer’ called Friar Floisterer (a portmanteau term combining ‘cloisterer’ and ‘foist’ or cheat) (p. 21, lines 33-4), who answers to a devilish-sounding superior called the ‘Black Provincial’ (p. 21, line 36). In one of Bawdin’s anecdotes, a Princess goes on pilgrimage to Pygmalion’s ‘image of alabaster’ (p. 35, line 17), which has been restored to the state of a ‘blessed image’ after Pygmalion’s death (p. 35, line 25). This is a clear allusion to the cult of the blessed Virgin, which is also invoked by Bawdin’s repeated references to St Mary. And in the last part of his letter to Walter Wedlock, Bawdin abandons his marital ambitions and dedicates himself to chastity, a vocation scorned by Protestants which is evidently degraded by Bawdin’s supposed commitment to it.

Bawdin’s devotion to chastity is in any case a fiction. Much of the final section is given over to advising ‘Cupidian Knights’ (p. 64, line 39) on how best to get access to other men’s wives; and this advice includes perhaps the most direct reference to Catholicism in the book. The adulterous chivalric tradition, so often ascribed by Protestants to the lascivious imaginations of ‘idle’ monks, is here described as one of the ‘old rites and customs’ which should perhaps be abandoned in view of the coming of Christ: ‘New lords, new laws’, Bawdin tells his readers in a passing moment of self-doubt (p. 65, lines 33-34). Protestants referred to the Catholic confession as ‘Old Custom’ and Protestantism as ‘New Custom’; New Custom was, for example, the name of a play published in 1573 which makes specific reference to the persecution of Protestants under Queen Mary. Not only, then, is the book an anti-Catholic satire, but it ends with what’s in effect a call for conversion (‘New lords, new laws’), which if it had not been couched in such unexceptionable terms – that is, as a call for repentance from the vice of adulterous lust – would surely have got the printer, William Seres, in serious trouble. After all, he’d already been jailed for his religious views at the beginning of Mary’s reign.[12]

Image from William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat

But The Image of Idleness is not merely, or even chiefly, anti-Catholic. It’s a reformist text, in the sense that all the satires of the 1550s, Protestant or Catholic, can be called reformist. It describes a society in disarray, one whose belief systems are in chaos, a situation of which the confessional split is only one symptom. We might expect satirists of the period to attack people of the opposite confession, but the briefest of glances shows that they’re just as likely to attack their own. Davy Diker’s prophecy, for instance, proved controversial because of its exposure, from a Protestant perspective, of corruption at the highest level of the Edwardian Protestant government. Baldwin’s Funerals of King Edward VI ascribes the young king’s death to the unscrupulous self-promotion of his subjects. And the central character in Baldwin’s novel Beware the Cat, the scholar-priest Gregory Streamer, thinks of himself as Protestant but keeps letting slip his continued commitment to what Baldwin represents as the values of Catholicism: above all superstition and rampant self-interest, especially in matters of the flesh. So, too, in The Image of Idleness Bawdin Bachelor keeps exposing his confessional commitment to the ‘Old Custom’ of Catholicism, which he amusingly conflates with classical paganism. But his professed beliefs are less important than his ability to manipulate them to his own advantage; to convince himself, against his own better judgement, that what he wishes to be the case is in fact the case – to beguile himself, in fact, through a series of exercises in imaginative self-delusion. Bawdin is one of a series of figures in the satire of the 1550s who choose to believe whatever suits them, and who self-consciously, in all knowledge of what they are doing, work to justify their false beliefs by whatever devious rhetoric or sophistry lies to hand. This, then, is the central drive of the anonymous proto-novel: to expose the willingness of Tudor subjects to imagine themselves into new beliefs. The idle image of the title is a state of mind, and every character in the book is willing to confess that such imaginative idleness is a dangerous form of self-indulgence.

Oliver Oldwanton, for instance, who claims in the dedication to have translated Bawdin’s letters from the Cornish, confesses that he knew the job was not worth doing. Nevertheless, he went ahead with it, on the basis that ‘commonly most men be not soon persuaded to give over the thing that they are affectionated unto upon any surmise or report that the doing thereof should stand against the rule of good order’ (p. 18, lines 28-30). With some difficulty, then, the translator has ‘wrested common reason’ to persuade himself that the letters will be useful to powerful men as a needful break from serious affairs (pp. 18-19). And Bawdin too is adept at persuading himself of what he knows to be false. He is constantly weaving elaborate explanations for his repeated rejections at the hands of women: ‘For doubtless,’ he points out at one point, ‘this transitory life is entangled with so many kinds of misery, that unless a man will flatter himself with some kind of vain glory or, contrary to the lively eye of his reason, delight or rejoice in some one trifle or other, the calamity and unquietness thereof will so fret nature that none shall be able to live out half their natural course’ (p. 39, lines 5-11). So when Bawdin’s face is scorched bright red by an attack of the sweating sickness he takes it as a sign that he should return with new energy to his amorous adventures, as if his redness were a sign of renewed youth rather than disease. Accordingly he sets about courting several women at once, so that each time he is rejected he can ‘feed his fantasy with hope that the best is behind’ (p. 41, lines 7-8) – that is, that one of the women who has not yet spurned him may be a better catch. When a friend of his points out that the women don’t want him because he’s old and ugly, Bawdin retorts that such truthful utterances – however regularly identified in Renaissance texts as the badge of true friendship – are profoundly unfriendly, since ‘it should have been good policy for all men (in mine opinion) to dissemble and bear each one with the folly and faults of other’, and in addition for ‘every man […] to feed and flatter themselves with some kind of vanity or vainglory without having any respect for desert or not deserving’ (p. 44, lines 10-15). The term ‘vainglory’, in fact, recurs in letter after letter, along with deferential nods to the goddess Venus. And in each case men’s vainglory is achieved or sustained by some ‘crafty policy’, whereby they themselves or their prospective lovers are convinced of something that is ‘contrary to the lively eye of his reason’. As the final section of Bawdin’s letter points out, ‘Men are easily persuaded to believe the thing such as in their heart they covet it should be’ (p. 64, lines 37-8); and while Bawdin intends this to reassure adulterers that they can deceive any credulous husband, by this stage in the book the reader knows full well that the phrase is equally applicable to Bawdin Bachelor, who has exposed himself on every page as the ultimate fantasist.

He is not alone. The English Protestant statesman Thomas Wilson published his celebrated treatise The Arte of Rhetorique in 1553; and shortly afterwards he went into exile on Mary’s accession. Unwisely, perhaps, he chose to spend his exile in Rome, where he was imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition. When Mary died he returned to England, and three years later published the second edition of his Arte of Rhetorique (1560); and in it he greatly expanded the section of the treatise devoted to the rhetorical function of laughter. Every one of the new anecdotes he added involved some anti-Catholic gibe; and by this means one hopes that he exorcised some of the damage he sustained on the continent.

Image from Jack Juggler

But Wilson, like the author of The Image of Idleness, is not content to restrict himself to Catholicism as the object of his attack. For him as for the satirists the religious conflicts of the mid-sixteenth century are a symptom of a cultural condition; and his most detailed account of this condition occurs in his discussion of poetic fictions and their role in persuasive discourse. ‘The Poetes’, he writes, ‘were wisemen, and wished in hart the redresse of things, the which when for feare, they durst not openly rebuke, they did in colours painte them out, and tolde men by shadowes what they should doe in good sooth’.[13] The problem was, he adds, that in ancient times some of their hearers perversely adopted these ‘shadowed’ tales for factual narratives, setting up their heroes as pagan gods. ‘Wee Christians’, he goes on, have similar fables such as the legends of the saints, which were invented as instructive allegories but later adopted as factual histories by the church, whose leaders set up images of their protagonists in their churches as ‘laymen’s books’. Needless to say, Wilson does not approve. ‘God forbad by expresse worde’, he tells us, ‘to make any graven Image, and shall wee bee so bold to breake Gods will for a good intent, and call these Idolles laie mens bookes?’ (p. 197). For Wilson, then, the works of the imagination have been repeatedly commandeered by unscrupulous authorities, transforming ‘shadowes’ into graven images in support of their own agendas. Generation after generation have found themselves the victims of the perverted imagination; but the imagination may also be used, he tells us elsewhere, to resist this process.

It’s the imaginative use of irony that for Wilson is the best weapon against tyrannous authorities like the ones he encountered in Rome. One example is the figure of dissimulatio or ‘close jesting’, which he describes as follows:

When we jest closely, and with dissembling meanes grig our fellowe, when in words we speake one thing, and meane in heart an other thing, declaring either by our countenaunce, or by utteraunce, or by some other way, what our whole meaning is. As when we see one boasting himselfe, and vaine glorious, to hold him up with ye and nay, and ever to add more to that which he saieth (p. 184).

Wilson gives several instances of such ‘close jesting’, but none is more apt than the writings of Bawdin Bachelor, whose vainglorious folly grows more extravagant with every page he writes, and who exposes himself for what he is the more openly the more devious he tries to be. The Image of Idleness is an extended exercise in dissimulatio, whereby the man who seeks to beguile himself and others is used as a means of beguiling the authorities; of tricking them, that is, into allowing (permitting to be printed) a text that criticizes the state religion. At a time when other satirical texts were being disallowed, or kept safely locked away until a change of government brought their perspective back into favour, the dissimulatio deployed by the author of The Image of Idleness stands out for its success as well as its courage. For this and other reasons, the book deserves to be better known.

Pockmarked Old Woman’s Tofu. Bawdin Bachelor’s face is ravaged by disease; this dish evokes both his face and early modern satire, a spicy medley



[1] A fine account of the satire written in this period remains John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982). See also Tom Betteridge, Literature and Politics in the English Reformation (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), chapters 2 and 3, and Mark Rankin, ‘Biblical Allusion and Argument in Luke Shepherd’s Verse Satires’, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature 1485-1603, ed. Mike Pincombe and Cathy Shrank (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), chapter 15.

[2] For Davy Diker’s Dream see my ‘William Baldwin and the Tudor Imagination’, The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Literature, 1485-1603, ed. Pincombe and Shrank, chapter 17.

[3] See my ‘The Cat Got your Tongue: Pseudo-Translation, Conversion and Control in William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat’, Translation and Literature, vol. 8, Part 1 (1999), pp. 3-27.

[4] For the early modern fantasy see Adrian Streete, Protestantism and Drama in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), chapter 4, ‘Perception and Fantasy in Early Modern Protestant Discourse’.

[5] John Heywood, The Spider and Fly, ed. John S. Farmer (London: Early English Drama Society, 1908), pp. 20-21.

[6] Marie Axton (ed.), Three Tudor Interludes: Thersites, Jacke Jugeler, Horestes (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), p. 91.

[7] See Mike Pincombe, ‘The Date of The Image of Idleness’, Notes and Queries 239 (n.s. vol. 41) (March 1994), p. 24.

[8] I discuss its authorship in ‘William Baldwin and the Politics of Pseudo-Philosophy in Tudor Prose Fiction’, Studies in Philology, vol. 97 no. 1 (Winter 2000), pp. 29-60.

[9] Michael Flachmann (ed.), ‘The First Epistolary Novel: The Image of Idleness. Text, Introduction and Notes’, Studies in Philology 87 (1990), pp. 1-74.

[10] Mike Pincombe has identified the line as Cornish, but not yet published his transcription of it. See The Image of Idleness, ed. Flachmann, p. 35, lines 26-30: ‘Marsoyse thees duan Guisca ancorne Rog hatre arta – being expounded by the priests of that temple to this effect in English: If to wear the horn thou find thyself aggrieved, give him back again and thou shalt soon be eased’.

[11] On Tudor Lucianic satire see my ‘Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction’, Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 41, no. 1 (2011), pp. 35-50.

[12] See Elizabeth Evenden, ‘William Seres’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/10.1093/ref:odnb/25094, accessed 29.05.18):

[13] Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique, ed. G. H. Mair, Tudor and Stuart Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), p. 195.

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